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Why smart women still don't make it up the career ladder

Though women have crowded out the guys in classrooms, they still find themselves to be the outsiders in most career fields. It’s not just work/life policies and misogynistic office environments that are stifling women's progress. The truth is, women still have a confidence problem.

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The reasons for this shift are as layered and interrelated. In part, girls observe that women who adhere to stereotypically feminine traits – humility and self-sacrifice chief among them – seem to avoid the blinding spotlight and, thus, all the alienation that can comes from being an outspoken, self-possessed woman (see Hillary Rodham Clinton).

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On the other hand, and perhaps in an effort to avoid this kind of alienation, girls and women tend to explain their own success in far less individualistic ways than do boys and men. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, giving the commencement address at Barnard College last week, touched on this: “Ask a woman why she did well on something, and she’ll say, ‘I got lucky. All of these great people helped me. I worked really hard.’ Ask a man and he’ll say or think, ‘What a dumb question. I’m awesome.’”

Tears instead of negotiating

As an advisory board member of The Op-Ed Project, an organization that aims to close the gender gap within public debate, I have seen roomfuls of highly educated and experienced women downplay their own credentials. I will never forget when one woman suggested that she had some knowledge of global development, but only after much prodding and poking admitted that she had a degree from Harvard, was the author of a critically-acclaimed book, and had led a highly successful grassroots movement for women’s rights in Nairobi.

Women don’t just play small when asked to own their expertise; some cry, some refuse to speak, some ask to leave the room.

It’s not only owning our expertise that we cower from, it’s also negotiating on our own behalf. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, co-authors of “Women Don’t Ask,” have studied this phenomenon extensively and concluded that “men use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want between two and nine times as often as women do.”

Our responsibility to change culture, behaviors

If you know a visionary woman marching across a graduation stage this spring, you know a woman at serious risk of losing her hard-earned dream, whether she holds an M.B.A, a J.D., or an M.Arch.

All of us have a responsibility – men and women – to transform the American workplace so that it reflects the reality of working parents’ lives, and socialize girls and women to proudly own their expertise in public and negotiate as fiercely as do their male peers.

We have a moral obligation to mainstream what is best about stereotypically feminine behaviors – accountability, cooperation, humility – to bust the myth of rogue success, while also creating a world where women can claim their successes without being socially alienated. Otherwise, we’re celebrating women’s progress prematurely.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," and coeditor of the anthology "Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists." She is an editor at and senior correspondent at The American Prospect.

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